Fate of Old Beijing 胡同的湮灭

In the face of China’s rapid modernization, the world’s most populous country is struggling to preserve its cultural heritage, and nowhere is this more visible than in the ancient alleyways and courtyards of Beijing.

Once a ubiquitous feature of Beijing, the hutongs are more than simply housing; they are actually a way of life. Entire families live in single, crowded courtyards, often with no bathrooms. Yet despite the lack of modern amenities, the communal aspect to life within the hutongs means that few want to leave – even as their neighbourhoods are being demolished and redeveloped. UNESCO estimates that more than 88 percent of the city’s old residential quarters are already gone, most torn down in the last three decades.

In a three-part series, filmmakers Jonah Kessel and Kit Gillet explore the vanishing world of Beijing’s hutongs, the realities of life within the narrow streets, and the future for these culturally-irreplaceable areas of China’s capital.

Film Makers:

Jonah Kessel (www.jonahkessel.com) is an award winning visual journalist based in Beijing. Between 2007-2010, Kessel took home over 40 awards for photo, video, design and Web projects. He has previously worked as the Creative Director of China Daily, as a photography consultant in North Africa and worked as a staff and freelance photographer and designer with newspaper and media outlets in the United States.

Kit Gillet was a 2010 Knight Foundation Fellow and previously worked for the South China Morning Post as a features writer. His work regularly appears in the likes of Forbes, Foreign Policy, The Washington Times and CNN, among others.


Music by: Wu Fei
Wu Fei (guzheng/voice)
Fred Frith (guitar)
Carla Kihlstedt (violin)

From album: A Distant Youth (2007, Forrest Hill Records) 

Produced by: ARVmusic











Tracks’ titles:
Summer Palace
Cloud of Birds

Historic Images:









Beijing Postcards

85,1 Nanluogu Xiang
Dongcheng District 100009




Translation: Ami Li
Translation: Xiaoming Wei
Audio Post Production: Jules Ambroisine

Originally published on March 30, 2011

One Response to “Fate of Old Beijing 胡同的湮灭”

  1. J Chen Says:

    Great feature. I spent several years of my childhood growing up in a hutong before my family emigrated and have a great deal of affection for them.

    Whether to preserve some of the smaller, more nondescript yards seems like a particularly thorny issue. Yes, demolishing them would cause a traditional way of life to disappear, but how much sense does it make for people to continue dwelling in these cramped and derelict warrens without indoor plumbing as the city modernizes around them? Is the rest of Beijing supposed to regard hutong dwellers like some precious snow globe figurines sealed in time?

    A combination of smart new development in place of the small yards and gentrification of the more significant yards seems most desirable. This of course assumes the government and developers can get their acts together. If Christopher Wren’s London or Baron Haussmann’s Paris is any lesson, Beijing has the opportunity to create a distinctive cityscape in place of its medieval forms, but a thoughtful and concerted plan is necessary.

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